Uber has revolutionized the taxi industry with its easy-to-use service, but its current features lack options for transgender drivers to identify themselves correctly, which get some of them kicked off the app.
Transgender drivers across the country are finding their accounts either temporarily or permanently suspended due to an Uber security feature that requires drivers to take a selfie to verify their identity. If the photo doesn't come back as a match to other photos on file, it will get flagged.
Janey Webb began transitioning her gender around the time she started working for Uber in October 2017. Since then, her physical appearance has changed quite a bit. For another job that might not be a huge issue, but for Uber drivers a drastic change in appearance raises an algorithmic red flag.
The Uber security feature is called Real-Time ID Check. It was rolled out in September 2016 to "protect both riders and drivers." Occasionally, drivers will be prompted to pull over and take a selfie. That photo is then compared to the drivers' photo on file, using technology from Microsoft Cognitive Services. If the photo isn't a match, the driver's account is temporarily suspended while Uber "looks into the situation."
In theory it makes sense. You don't want someone that's not actually registered on Uber driving people around. But the problem is that the technology Uber is using doesn't take into account drivers going through gender transitions.
Webb took steps to document her physical changes in the Uber system by uploading new photos throughout her transition, both so that riders would know who to look for and so that Uber had a catalog of her appearance in case there was ever an issue. And just before July 4, 2018, there was.
"I was all ready to [drive for] Uber. I drove downtown, and the only reason I knew I was deactivated was because I couldn't get back online."
Webb was prompted to call Uber support, which told her the account had been deactivated because one of her photos did not match her driver's license on file.
Webb then had to drive two hours to Uber's only in-person support center in her home state of Iowa, called a Greenlight Hub. There she explained her gender transition and was told the deactivation was a mistake. However, she was not assured that the same thing couldn't happen again if she uploads a new photo.
"A trans person can't be expected to update their license every three months or so just to avoid being deactivated," Webb said.
"When you have a system that is so overly automated, people like myself fall within the cracks."
In total the ordeal took Webb out of work for around three days, one of which was July 4, a big moneymaking day for drivers. Uber drivers are technically independent contractors, and Webb was not reimbursed for the time she was unable to work.
Uber confirmed that this instance did occur, but the company said the issue can often be solved over the phone or on the app as opposed to showing up in person at a support center.
Webb isn't the only person to deal with photo verification issues.
In another case, Lindsay, an Uber driver from Michigan, was also suspended from the app for photo inconsistencies and had to drive to a Greenlight Hub for further action. She estimated that she was prompted to pull over and verify her identity roughly 100 times in the past year and a half.
Lindsay declined to give her full name under fear of retaliation. As a result, Uber could not verify the incident. However, she provided CNBC with screenshots of her correspondence with Uber.
Uber's ID Check notification tells drivers that they have been "randomly selected to verify your identity." However, an Uber spokesperson said Real-Time ID Checks can also be triggered by potential fraud signals or reports. Uber did not provide statistics on the average number of Real-Time ID Check verification prompts that drivers receive.
"I don't think Uber is this evil company," Lindsay said. "Yeah, their focus is on profit, and one of those things is automating as much as possible, and when you have a system that is so overly automated, people like myself fall within the cracks."
It's not just drivers facing problems with the app. Robyn Kanner is a user-experience designer and she wrote about one way Uber could improve the app experience for trans people in particular – giving users the option to specify their pronouns in the app.
An Uber spokesperson said the company rolled out a feature in April that allows employees to specify their pronouns in an internal directory. However, the feature is not yet available to riders and drivers.
"We want Uber to be a welcoming, safe and respectful experience for all who use the app," an Uber spokeswoman told CNBC. "That's why we maintain clear community guidelines and a nondiscrimination policy for riders and drivers, in addition to many safety features. We continue to focus on ways to advance our tech and constantly improve our app experience."